the great asia food hunt – a guest post

guest post by our UK tummyrub alex thompson, a lover of food (and beer).
warning: this entry will make you crave chilli crab like never before

Alex Zuma HK2

our uk tummyrub alex

Ok, an outsider (me) dropped into town for a week or two to help a client launch a new product in the region. Work dominates my attention day-to-day but food is way more than that so I reckoned it merited a little care and attention.

After a bombardment of requests for foodie recommendations, Juicy and Delicious (actually Juicy) asked me to stir it up a bit and write a guest entry on nosh in Asia from the perspective of a foreigner without enough time to taste it all. Tense moment because I have a tendency to sit on the fence. It’s time to get off and make a statement based on minimal exposure.

Which fence? This test is all about first impressions. The question of whether food in Hong Kong, Malaysia or Singapore is best. Only three meals in each country to decide. Which has the X-Factor?

** Locals may find all this very obvious because you’ve all grown up on this stuff**

First, the contenders:

In HK we have: 1) Michelin-starred Szechuan at Hutong; 2) 5am kebab in Lan Kwai Fong and; 3) exquisite sushi and surroundings at Zuma. Ok I replace the kebab (which beats all other anywhere else) with fine Chinese dumplings tasted with the lovely Winne Lau, a serious foodie and family friend.

In KL the contestants are: 1) Nasi Lemak with coconut rice at Madam Wong’s followed by an interesting sweet ice-shaving dessert; 2) a tasting tour of the locals’ locals at Jalan Alur including grilled Thai king prawn, steamed vegetable, special chicken stay and; 3) fresh and fragrant traditional Indian on banana leaf local-style (disclosure: Indian is my favourite cuisine by far).

Last, Singapore. Actually, there’s only one entry worth naming. Shell-fish street food @ Newton Hawker Centre. No others need enter.

Now, judgment time:

I could not speak highly enough of what Hong Kong and KL had to offer. London, Paris and New York would struggle to compete. Fine ingredients; flavours fresh and finely balanced. Enough food to leave me feeling greedy afterwards. Exactly what I needed while away and ‘real’ enough to make me feel I had not been a trapped and conservative tourist (because in all cases recommendations were local).

Nasi Lemak was the richest dish and jelly fish was definitely the most interesting but least favourite because the texture was too out-there for me. Dim Sum eclipsed its namesake here in London and grilled prawns with Thai green chili were the best snack. But which dish won?

Now, I am sure any genuine food enthusiast could refute and disprove my conclusion (soon to follow) in a nano-heartbeat, but why ignore what your heart tells you? My mind was made up the moment I ate the winning meal then and it has not been swayed since. The winner is… Singapore Chili Crab! And my justification?

**Again, much of this is for the unaware foreigner**

Outdoors, plastic table and chairs, plastic beer mug, no-one near you to talk with or about – a combination that crushed the opposition for the lone traveler. Cracked their joints and broke them in two, just as you must to devour the dish yourself.

It is not a meal you can eat with anyone you don’t know very, very well; or without formal training in vivisection (messy doesn’t come close). But when alone, hungry for adventure and in need of indulgence, Chili Crab plunged me into a state of enjoyment none of the others came close to. The only food that competes for comfort is Yorkshire pudding with real beef gravy when you’re facing down one of England’s grimmest, greyest, grisliest afternoons.

Cold, cold Tiger in hand as I watched the earthly demise of my evening meal (a poignant moment for any diner). The owner of the joint beamed and pretty much winked at me when he made to dunk my selection into a bubbling cauldron. Crab scrambled to save itself. Failed. I stayed resolutely seated and hungry.

Five minutes later my dead meal arrived. More than a little reddened from his swim, he was bathed in a red and fiery sauce created, I’m sure, so you can’t forget its contents’ violent end. Claws like the jaws of a giant turtle. Chunks of meat you’d expect to see on a plate of cod. A shell like a 15th century knight’s breast-plate. Ok I’m prone to exaggeration but you need to understand what ‘crab’ means to a Brit used to Brighton crabsticks. Pathetic specimens of processed scrapings from the floor of a fish-finger factory.

Now the eating…

The process is a delicate balance. How to handle your hunger, appreciate the cooking, love the food, quench your thirst, absorb the surroundings but really ignore the world and hope the world ignores you all at one time. That’s what you’re aiming for. But you can’t be a man eating a dish like that alone without people noticing (and laughing at) the unashamed selfish gluttony. The trick is not to care. Total gastronomic abandon. No side-dishes, no excuses, no sensitivities, just messy, indulgent excess.

None of it was easy to get to. For forty-five minutes I smashed, cracked and slurped my way through. It was almost an ordeal. The resounding crunches as I went after morsel after morsel were satisfying enough alone, despite cut fingers and gums. But, for the uninitiated, the crabmeat is AMAZING. It is far, far better than anything I have tasted before, but it’s by no means the end of the ritual.

Hot, sticky, gratifyingly rich stew (easily good enough to eat on its own with a spoon) infuses the body of the crab, clings to the meat and erupts as claws crack. The bits of meat you lose as you dismantle the exoskeleton linger quietly in the hot sauce until you resort to tools over fingers and scoop them up, meaning you have two meals in one. What the sauce has in it, I would love to know. Garlic for sure. Onions, I think. Disappointingly the waiter couldn’t tell me.

Anyhow, battle over with a bowl piled with crab shrapnel and a clean plate to show for it, there was no need for anything afterwards but another calming beer. I sat back, surveyed the scene, felt way too full, very lucky and totally satisfied. Not smug; just happy, and that’s how you should feel after you’ve eaten, I think. Happy you have tried something new, happy you’ve been surprised, happy you had the chance to eat it in the first place and happy you won (never let a meal beat you, said my Grandma).

So I beat it, but it definitely beat the rest. No arguments. Sorry Karen: maybe I should have Chili Crab in Malaysia as I hear it’s great there too. Guess that’s why you guys are battling over food naming rights, right?

That’s it from this traveler. This is the end of a long entry but I guess it’s not the end of the debate. I am sure you all think me an unsophisticated, inexperienced, inexpert hedonist. Some of that sticks for sure, but not as much as the memory of that lovely garlicky, spicy soupy crab. Juicy and Delicious for sure. Can I come back soon please?


the crime scene

8 Responses to “the great asia food hunt – a guest post”
  1. Kelv says:

    Bravo, hear, hear! 🙂

  2. KarenH says:

    such word-crafting! such imagery! One can sink one’s claws and incisors into your meal(s) by merely reading about your experience! Alas, your tastebuds and other senses have but touched the tip of the culinary iceberg in Southeast Asia. Return for more, and better!

  3. Victoria says:

    Haha! I can never forget my first experience of chili crab either. It truly is not comparable to anything i’ve tried in HK, Thailand or Malaysia. You can’t get chili crab like you can in Singapore. Complete with fried mantou? Get me out of ny! Now I’m hungry for Singapore again. Doh.

  4. i know… nothin like chilli crab but hey, boston is just a coupla hours’ bus-ride away! boston lobster has got to be one of my favourite seafood experiences. n the lobsters are so huge n meaty that all u really need to do is boil them as is, tear the chunks of flesh n dip in butter n lemon… YUMMMMM.

  5. Manndy says:

    Chilli crab, steamed man tou and a glass of cold tiger to wash it down after. Sounds heavenly — makes the bits of crab and gravy stuck between the fingernails afterwards all worth it. :p

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